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Weekend Escape: San Diego

Dino Diversion

An exhibit of kid-friendly dinos-- and friends--beats out real beasts at a park

June 15, 1997|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Simon writes for The Times' Metro section

SAN DIEGO — Can a Tyrannosaurus rex really outrun a Jeep?

Does a Dilophosaurus really spew poisonous spit?

I can't say we came to San Diego specifically to answer those questions. When we arrived, in fact, we had no intention of testing any of the premises behind the "Jurassic Park" movies. To be honest, my husband and I had planned on a veg-out weekend of poolside lounging to escape the smothering heat of our Woodland Hills home.

To this end, we had booked a room for Saturday night at the Doubletree Hotel in the Mission Valley section of San Diego, not far from Hotel Circle. Not a very adventuresome choice, but hey, we love the chocolate chip cookies the Doubletree gives you on check-in. And with our American Automobile Assn. discount, the room cost us $115 plus tax. (They expect the same rate to hold throughout the summer.)

As it turned out, the hotel was much nicer than your typical mid-priced chain, with two pools and a spa. Our room was bland but comfy and surprisingly spacious, with a sofa plus a king-size bed.

We had deliberately arrived in San Diego without a plan. But one soon presented itself. While strolling in dripping suit through the Doubletree lobby, my husband caught sight of a flier featuring that unmistakable red and yellow T. rex logo.

We had dropped in on San Diego, it appeared, just in time for the first days of "Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park: the Exhibit" at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.

If you're a devoted dino fan like my husband, you'll fall for the exhibit the minute you spot the towering Tyrannosaurus rex poised to pounce near the cash register. If you're a special-effects skeptic like myself, you'll be absorbed by the time you read the first explanatory sign contrasting Hollywood fantasy with scientific fact.

The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2 and takes up most of the 9,000-square-foot museum, features dozens of props from the first "Jurassic Park" movie. But by far the most impressive items are the dinosaurs themselves.

Sneering, snarling or strangely snugly, the life-size dinos pose against jungle backdrops on the museum's first floor. There's the sickly three-horned Triceratops, ailing from nibbling on poisonous plants. There's the gentle Brachiosaurus munching on a treetop. And there's a whole nest of Compsognathus, or "compys," the wily chicken-size dinos that play a gory starring role in the movie sequel, "The Lost World."

Each display includes a monitor showing the relevant clip from "Jurassic Park," so you can see how the props performed in the movie. Take the time to read the placards set up in front of each prop because they explain in clear, kid-friendly prose exactly what liberties the movie-makers took in bringing dinosaurs to celluloid life.

For example, it turns out that the lumbering T. rex could not, in all likelihood, have caught up to a speeding Jeep. And no, the Dilophosaurus did not paralyze its enemies with venomous spit--at least, not as far as anyone knows. The movie-makers also pumped up the dinos' physiques a bit. They added a colorful clown-like fringe around the Dilophosaurus (the real one, apparently, had none). And theirs was a T. rex on steroids, with more powerful front legs, larger teeth and more expressive eyes than the real-life "tyrant lizard king."

Though the San Diego exhibit is dressed up with Hollywood hype, it also features a fascinating dose of sober science, including fossilized dino eggs and even dino skin.

We lingered for some time over the actual fossils displayed in the museum's basement. The Velociraptor skull, one of only four ever found, looked amazingly dainty. (Velociraptors were every bit as agile and lethal as portrayed in the movie, but they were just 6 feet long from snout to tail, considerably smaller than the celluloid version.) On the other end of the scale, nothing quite prepares you for the massive power of the 5-foot-long T. rex skull.

You can't help but dawdle, too, over the chunks of crystallized tree sap that preserved ancient bugs in the act of eating, snoozing and even mating. Though the critters look temptingly accessible, scientists dismiss as fantasy the "Jurassic Park" premise of extracting dino DNA from blood that mosquitoes sucked before getting trapped in amber.

The same ticket also gets you into the rest of the Natural History Museum, which features a "mine tunnel" showing how gems look underground, two hands-on discovery labs and a display of live desert animals such as snakes and rats. My husband wandered through the bug section of the museum, pausing for some time in front of a gross display of cockroaches from around the world. (He vowed never again to let dishes pile up in the sink.)

We emerged about 5 p.m. to find we were starving. Near our hotel, we had gobbled great sandwiches for lunch at a gourmet bread store (Upper Crust Artisan Breads on Mission Center Drive, which offers free tastes of specialties such as fig and honey, roasted red pepper and cranberry orange walnut loaves).

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